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Ravelstein Hardcover – April 24, 2000

3.8 out of 5 stars 133 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Saul Bellow confined himself to shorter fictions. Not that this old master ever dabbled in minimalism: novellas such as The Actual and The Bellarosa Connection are bursting at the seams with wit, plot, and the intellectual equivalent of high fiber. Still, Bellow's readers wondered if he would ever pull another full-sized novel from his hat. With Ravelstein, the author has done just that--and he proves that even in his ninth decade, he can pin a character to the page more vividly, and more permanently, than just about anybody on the planet.

Character is very much the issue in Ravelstein, whose eponymous subject is a thinly disguised version of Bellow's boon companion, the late Allan Bloom. Like Bloom, Abe Ravelstein has spent much of his career at the University of Chicago, fighting a rearguard action against the creeping boobism and vulgarity of American life. What's more, he's written a surprise bestseller (a ringer, of course, for The Closing of the American Mind), which has made him into a millionaire. And finally, he's dying--has died of AIDS, in fact, six years before the opening of the novel. What we're reading, then, is a faux memoir by his best friend and anointed Boswell, a Bellovian body-double named Chick:

Ravelstein was willing to lay it all out for me. Now why did he bother to tell me such things, this large Jewish man from Dayton, Ohio? Because it very urgently needed to be said. He was HIV-positive, he was dying of complications from it. Weakened, he became the host of an endless list of infections. Still, he insisted on telling me over and over again what love was--the neediness, the awareness of incompleteness, the longing for wholeness, and how the pains of Eros were joined to the most ecstatic pleasures.
Ravelstein is a little thin in the plot department--or more accurately, it has an anti-plot, which consists of Chick's inability to write his memoir. But seldom has a case of writer's block been so supremely productive. The narrator dredges up anecdote after anecdote about his subject, assembling a composite portrait: "In approaching a man like Ravelstein, a piecemeal method is perhaps best." We see this very worldly philosopher teaching, kvetching, eating, drinking, and dying, the last in melancholic increments. His death, and Chick's own brush with what Henry James called "the distinguished thing," give much of the novel a kind of black-crepe coloration. But fortunately, Bellow shares Ravelstein's "Nietzschean view, favorable to comedy and bandstands," and there can't be many eulogies as funny as this one.

As always, the author is lavish with physical detail, bringing not only his star but a large gallery of minor players to rude and resounding life ("Rahkmiel was a non-benevolent Santa Claus, a dangerous person, ruddy, with a red-eyed scowl and a face in which the anger muscles were highly developed"). His sympathies are also stretched in some interesting directions by his homosexual protagonist. Bellow hasn't, to be sure, transformed himself into an affirmative-action novelist. But his famously capacious view of human nature has been enriched by this additional wrinkle: "In art you become familiar with due process. You can't simply write people off or send them to hell." A world-class portrait, a piercing intimation of mortality, Ravelstein is truly that other distinguished thing: a great novel. --James Marcus

From Publishers Weekly

Age does not wither Saul Bellow. The 84-year-old writer's new novel is echt Bellow--the grab-bag paragraphs stuffed with truculent observations; the comedic mix of admiration and rivalry that subtends the friendships of intellectual men; the impossible and possible wives. Abe Ravelstein, a professor at a well-known Midwestern college, is obviously modeled on the late Allan Bloom. To clinch the identification, Bellow's narrator, Chick, a writer 20 years older than Ravelstein, uses phrases to describe Ravelstein that are almost identical to phrases Bellow used about Bloom in his published eulogy. Like Bloom, Ravelstein operates his phone like a "command post," getting information from his former students in high positions in various governments. Like Bloom, Ravelstein writes a bestseller using his special brand of political philosophy to comment on American failings. And like Bloom, Ravelstein throws money around as if "from the rear end of an express train." In fact, Chick is so obsessed with the price of Ravelstein's possessions that at times the work reads like a garage sale of his student's effects. Ravelstein also spends lavishly on his boyfriend, Nikki, a princely young Singaporean. Chick's wife, at the beginning of the memoir, is Vela, an East European physicist. Ravelstein dislikes her, and suspects that her Balkan friends are anti-Semites. Eventually, Vela kicks Chick out of his house and divorces him (fans will not be surprised that Bellow, as seems to be his habit, makes this a thinly veiled attack on his ex-wife). Chick ends up marrying one of Ravelstein's students, Rosamund. When Ravelstein succumbs to AIDS, Chick mulls over his obligation to write a memoir of his friend, but he is blocked until he himself suffers a threatening illness. Chick's alternate na?vet? and subconscious rivalry with Ravelstein is the subtext here. Amply rewarding, this late work from the Nobel laureate flourishes his inimitable linguistic virtuosity, combining intimations of mortality with gossipy tattle in a biting and enlightening narrative. First serial to the New Yorker. (Apr.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; First Edition edition (April 24, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067084134X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670841349
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (133 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #569,279 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Saul Bellow won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel HUMBOLDT'S GIFT in 1975, and in 1976 was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 'for the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work.' He is the only novelist to receive three National Book Awards, for THE ADVENTURES OF AUGIE MARCH, HERZOG, and MR. SAMMLER'S PLANET

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Dying of AIDS, internationally renowned professor, Abe Ravelstein commissions his friend, Chick, to write his biography in the form of a memoir.
A bold and brash novel, Ravelstein is reminiscent of Humboldt's Gift; each contains an admiring narrator and each is based on actual persons in Bellow's life.
Ravelstein, however, is more of an extravert than is Humboldt, becoming almost a comic figure who lives the high life on a grand and glorious scale. He tosses his hand-tailored clothes about with abandon, orders lavish meals, and in general, has a passion for material possessions while maintaining an utter disdain for money.
Ravelstein is certainly a far cry from the dour figures that usually people Bellow's novels; in fact he is just the opposite: flamboyant, perverse, bizarre, passionate and material. Considering what fate has in store for him, perhaps his personality simply adds to the overall tragedy of the novel.
The other characters in Ravelstein are vintage Bellow. The men are removed academics, the women devouring and unreasonable.
It is Chick, however, who comes to dominate the book. A big-city, Jewish type, he is still unprepared for his disastrous marriage to Vela, a stereotypical Bellow female straight out of Herzog. His second marriage, however, to Rosamund, one of Ravelstein's former students is more successful, but since Bellow seems averse to giving us anything resembling a fulfilling relationship and a sympathetic female character, Rosamund remains little more than background music.
Fighting demons of his own, Chick decides to escape the pessimism surrounding Ravelstein and leaves the gloomy Chicago winter for the sunnier climes of the Caribbean where he comes face to face with his own mortality.
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Format: Hardcover
Ravelstein, or rather Bloom, is finely eulogized by Saul Bellow in this short novel. As a corporate cubicle prisoner, I myself wish I could live the literary life--the best I can hope for is to read about such people and to read all the literature I possibly can. Alan Bloom's life seems--as it was depicted in a excerpts of "Ravelstein" published in The New Yorker--seems similar to the life of Robert Hughes also eulogized in "The New Yorker". Both were gay intellectuals whose telephone rang day and night with international calls seeking a bit of well-informed analysis.
Of course, having just read "Ravelstein" I have jumped into "The Closing of the American" mind. But I am puzzled by Saul Bellow's introduction. He says that Moses Herzog, of the novel "Herzog" tries to learn about life by reading the great books. But Saul Bellow says you learn about life by living it--not by reading about it. But isn't the theme of Bloom's essays that such readin gives us a continuum of societies fables and tales and a moral foundation with which we can understand life's issues and the personalities that we meet. Seems the two ideas don't mesh.
I think the Saul Bellow must be trying to sooth his damaged heart by writing about his bitter marriage to the character Elva's real life equal, Bellow's mathematician wife. It is good that his friend Ravelstein (Bloom) is there to help Chick (Bellow) understand what a really cruel woman she is. Chick seems able to discern such matters. Martial discord and the pain thereof also is the major theme of "Herzog". In a way it is good that Bellow has had such tormenting affairs, otherwise we would not have received such wonderful literature.
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Format: Hardcover
Have a look at the wonderful article in the New York Times, Sunday, May 28, 2000, in the Arts & Leisure Section. (I believe you can search for it at the [...] website.) "Ravelstein Knows Everything, Almost", by Michael Beckerman, discusses the lacunae in Ravelstein's musical education. Evidently there are a couple of wonderful musical anachronisms (or historical mistakes) which found their way into the book. Who made the mistakes? Is it Bellow, is it the narrator, or is it Ravelstein who is in error? There's also a particularly clever discussion of the book's title.
All of which is to say: a book any less deserving than Ravelstein would not enjoy or deserve this kind of attention, or this quality of criticism. The book, in my opinion, is one of Bellow's best in many years, far outshining the recent novellas. In many ways, it is worth comparison to Herzog and Humboldt's Gift. Ravelstein is not for everyone, mind you -- if you are too interested in plot, for example, or easily bored by lofty prose. And give up on all that criticism of Bellow, his serial uxoriousness, his exploitation of a friend's life, etc. Bellow does not spare himself any criticism, either; why do the critics always fail to mention that?
A propos of Ravelstein's intermittent lapses: I was surprised that, while dining in the restaurant Lucas-Carton, at the Place de la Madeleine in Paris, Ravelstein failed to note that the interior is a famous Art Nouvelle near-masterpiece by Majorelle. How could that have escaped his attention, commenting, as he did, on every other aspect of the meal? Ravelstein is very nearly a great book, and one that I look forward to reading again.
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